Milan Lucic Is Best Replacement, but Oilers Still Worse After Taylor Hall Trade

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistJuly 1, 2016

FILE- In this Feb. 9, 2016, file photo, Los Angeles Kings' Milan Lucic skates during an NHL hockey game in Boston. The New Jersey Devils have acquired former No. 1 overall draft pick Taylor Hall from the Edmonton Oilers for defenseman Adam Larsson, which the teams announced Wednesday, June 29, 2016, two days before the start of free agency. The Oliers get salary cap space to possibly sign free agent Lucic with Hall's $6 million annual salary heading to New Jersey.  (AP Photo/Winslow Townson, File)
Winslow Townson/Associated Press

On Wednesday, the Edmonton Oilers traded away one of the five best left wings in hockey when they sent Taylor Hall to New Jersey. On Friday, they signed the best free agent left wing for most of the next decade.

ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun broke the news:

There are some obvious things worth saying about the contract. To land a player like Lucic, this is the price; teams value him. The money’s actually pretty reasonable for a competent first-line player (more on that in a moment), though, as always with these contracts, the term is a serious concern. In other words, it’s not a good contract, but by the standards of free agency it represents market value.

Lucic’s perceived value includes his ability to impact goal differential through things like puck possession and scoring, but also his physical presence. It’s difficult to put value on the latter. He is undeniably a big, aggressive player, perhaps the toughest and meanest top-six forward left in the NHL. That’s a nice element to have on the roster.

Connor McDavid
Connor McDavidPaul Vernon/Associated Press

However, those expecting Lucic to act effectively as a deterrent are disregarding history. He was on the ice, playing left wing, when a dirty hit ended Marc Savard’s career. That’s not Lucic’s fault, but it should dismiss unwarranted belief that he will magically shield Edmonton’s Connor McDavid from opposition checking.

Easier to categorize is Lucic’s offensive contribution. He ranks 62nd among NHL forwards in points/hour at even-strength since the 2012 lockout; at five-on-five he is unquestionably a first line-level scorer. He is less effective on the power play, but he’s still ranked 90th in the NHL over the same span in terms of points-per-game.

Lucic also fares well by the possession metrics. He posted a 58.5 percent Fenwick rating as part of an effective top line in Los Angeles last year, and he has a decent longer-term history of helping his team out-shoot the opposition. He’s always played with good linemates, but he’s a good linemate himself and, for the most part, those players have seen their metrics improve in his presence.

There is a longer-term risk. There’s a perception that players like Lucic tend to age badly, and it’s worth noting that his personal five-on-five shot rate fell to the lowest number of his career last season. In the short-term, however, Edmonton added a very good forward at a reasonable cap hit, and one who is likely to look even better if he regularly lines up alongside Connor McDavid.

Despite Lucic’s obvious quality as a player, however, it’s difficult to be optimistic about the Oilers’ decision-making process this week.

Taylor Hall
Taylor HallGus Ruelas/Associated Press

For starters, a team which has been surprisingly bad at generating offence the last few seasons just got worse. If we use the same metrics we did for Lucic, we find that Hall ranked third and 12th, respectively, over the same span in terms of even-strength points/hour and total points/game. Lucic is a quality top-three forward; Hall is the third-best even-strength scorer in the NHL.

Critically, too, Hall didn’t play with McDavid last season. Rather, his presence gave the Oilers a second scoring line (well, an only scoring line for the half-season McDavid was on the shelf). It’s important to place proper value on what he did, and it’s worth noting that regular centre Leon Draisaitl’s personal scoring rate fell by more than half when he was separated from Hall, according to Jonathan Willis' analysis in the Edmonton Journal. Lucic will surely be a great complement for McDavid, but he won’t be able to fill the same role of anchoring a second scoring line.

Adam Larsson
Adam LarssonTom Mihalek/Associated Press

The trade-off that Edmonton made was downgrading at forward in exchange for upgrading on defence. Adam Larsson, acquired in the Hall trade, is a good right-shot defenceman who for the last two seasons has performed well as a complement to New Jersey’s Andy Greene. The difficulty is that the gap in talent between Larsson and top unrestricted free agent option Jason Demers is a lot smaller than the gap between Hall and Lucic.

Of the four players on that list, the only undeniably elite NHL talent is Hall. That’s the problem with these moves, as talent distribution isn’t linear, but rather a curve. It’s a lot harder to add one of the handful of guys in the top tier than it is to find players from the next rung down. New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero said as much to LeBrun.

“I definitely wasn't looking to trade Adam Larsson,” he said. “But I may never get a chance again to get Taylor Hall.”

The good news for Edmonton is that the Oilers have addressed the area where they needed help the most, the right side of their blue line. The bad news is that they may never get a chance again to add a Hall-like talent.

Statistics courtesy of Hockey-Reference.com and Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com. Salary information courtesy of GeneralFanager.com

Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.

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